The social experiment failed after a mere 10 days, the peril too great. Hotel owner Albert Weldon Berch settled onto the edge of his bed in the owner’s suite and sighed, “I’m indeed sorry to lose you,” as he wrote a severance check for the departing porter, a man eager to catch the next train out of town.
Berch was disappointed, if not drained. His heartfelt, or foolhardy, undertaking to challenge bigotry had been thwarted. Wife Lula stood nearby, holding their young daughter in her arms, harboring a more pragmatic bent, such as how to replace the dedicated porter when no whites in town, boys or men, were willing to stoop to shine another man’s shoes. With their hotel business flourishing in the face of an oil boom, the demand for quality help was greater than the labor pool allowed.
Turning back our clocks to this precise moment on the evening of December 17, 1923, Albert Berch has three minutes left to live, while the departing porter, a “crippled negro” named Robert Johnigan, will yearn for a death so swift.
With a morbid nod to destiny, it was fortunate for my two sisters and me that our maternal grandfather was shot and killed at age 30 in the lobby of the Johnson Hotel in Marlow, Oklahoma. Had Albert Berch lived to continue as proprietor of the hotel, we three siblings would not have appeared on this planet. The unusual cascade of events that followed the murder led to our existence, and the murder profoundly altered our family’s history.
The Johnson Hotel was owned and operated by Albert and Lula Berch when our mother was born in one of the hotel’s rooms located only steps away from where her father would be murdered. Our grandmother and mother barely avoided the spray of bullets that killed Albert Berch and Robert Johnigan, the latter being the primary target. Or, so we were told.
Almarian, named for her father Al, was a few months shy of her second birthday when the murder occurred. She was in the arms of her mother, and according to Lula, the mother-daughter duo entered the lobby at the exact moment gunfire erupted, whereupon a bullet intended for Lula pierced Almarian’s baby gown without causing harm. So, to take the conjectural folly of “what if” one step further, the trajectory of this bullet charted the course of our existence, my sisters and I, even more than the one that killed Albert Berch.
Our mother spent much of her life embroiled in the “why” of it all until she was finally laid to rest in a Marlow grave 88 years after the murders. Oddly, prior to her death, Almarian orchestrated a family burial plot that included her father Albert, her mother Lula, and herself, the only child of the Berch couple.
“Odd” for several reasons. First, Marlow had not offered consoling arms after the murders. In fact, when our grandmother left town with her life in jeopardy and her daughter in tow, Albert was resting eternally in a poorly marked grave, with Lula vowing never to return during her lifetime. She came close to fulfilling that promise. Odd, too, that our mother had such a strong need for the three of them to be together, even though they had been a family for a mere 22 months. She had no memory of her father and no recollections as a Marlow resident. My sisters and I marvel at this bond, so powerful for our mother that our father’s remains went along for the ride. We are bewildered that the ashes of Francis W. Hollingsworth, MD are now part of the landscape in a town that he had barely visited. Meanwhile, the cemetery in our hometown of El Reno, Oklahoma doesn’t host a single blood relative.
I am 4th generation Al Berch. Indeed, the Berch saga should begin with Albert’s father, “Doctor” Albert Berch, Sr., the quotation marks as apt today as when they enclosed his title in a 1924 anonymous letter to my widowed grandmother, claiming shady maneuverings on the part of her father-in-law, “Doctor” Berch. Yet, newspapers after the murder refer to Albert, Sr. as a “prominent physician,” a peculiar description in light of the fact that he was new to Marlow, having arrived there apparently free of the nagging need for credentials.
Let me interject a comment about the personal pronouns that will be scattered throughout this narrative. When I say, “my grandmother” or “my mother,” it is really “our grandmother” or “our mother.” For Susan Hollingsworth Aggarwal and Dawn Hollingsworth, my two sisters, this is their family story, too.
As for source material, I will offer references as the story requires, while letting the reader judge reliability. Nothing has ever been formally assembled and published to chronicle this notorious double-murder other than newspaper accounts, in spite of the fact that the crime extended beyond the “crippled negro” and into the heart of white America, a particularly egregious act in 1923 that drew nationwide attention.
My grandmother was a prolific scribbler. In fact, both my mother and grandmother were afflicted by hypergraphia, faithfully recording minutiae into their diaries throughout both of their long lives. But it didn’t stop at the diaries. Their free-floating anxieties found a place to land on any available scrap of paper. My grandmother was particularly resourceful here, often mimicking the ancient palimpsest where parchment was scraped clean and re-used. Lula wrote her notes between the lines on Proctor & Gamble invoice forms, the flip sides of personal letters, and on the backs of many envelopes. On one occasion, during a tense mother-daughter imbroglio, they became dueling banjos 30 miles apart, each feverishly writing about the other.
Still, many blanks remain in the story of this double murder. While reconstructing the crime and its aftermath, then by sleuthing through the evidence for long-lost answers, I will leave the blanks alone and simply tell the tale, as true to the facts as I can be. And when I drift toward speculation, I will paint it as such. Furthermore, I pledge not to pad the story with the intent to impart fabled nobility, a common theme in genealogic pursuits. Whether or not my grandfather died as part of a noble act is a central issue in the differing versions of the murder. I do not seek blue blood. Hasn’t history already taught us that blue blood tends to run downhill? If my research indicates an ancestor to be a scalawag, then so be it.
Grandmother Lula was, of course, the first to become obsessed by this story. Then, in mid-life and with empty nest, my mother and her lifelong obsession hit full stride, so my narrative addresses that angle as well, including her search for her father’s grave followed by her novelization of the saga.
And finally, my obsession, which began with the death of my mother, the moment when this ripening tale slipped from her fingers to mine. Up until that time it had been her story, her entrée as an author, her obsession, her unknown father. For me, it had been unconfirmed rumor. Did Albert Berch even exist? Even as his namesake, I had only seen one photographic portrait, and we were led to believe that this was all that remained. For me, Albert Berch was mythical, providing a colorful conversation-starter, from playground days (“My grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan”), extending to the present where the refined version draws in complexities and nuances, kicking and screaming all the way toward a disquieting truth.
My name is Alan Berch Hollingsworth, and this is my take on the murder of my grandfather, Albert Berch. But it’s Lula’s story, too. And, my mother’s. Indeed, it is a family plot.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Introduction to the Cascade
- Marlow, Oklahoma
- Johnson’s Hotel – the Cradle That Rocks
- The Facts of the Case Will Reveal…
- Combing Family Roots
- Lucinda Jane Combs Garvin Berch
- Albert Berch (LA to Fargo to Marlow)
- From Zeitgeist to Kyklos
- King Jack
- Seven Defendants Dwindle to Two
- According to the Newspapers
- Kincannon to the Pen, while Gandy Goes It Alone
- A Trip to Oklahoma’s Supreme Court
- Where Have You Gone Robert Johnigan?
- Lula’s Crusade in the Aftermath – the 1st Obsession
- For the Rest of Her Life
- Almarian Berch & the 2nd Obsession
- One-Half Dream
- Alan Berch (Hollingsworth) – the 3rd Obsession
- The Cardboard Box
- Loose Ends and Dead Ends
- A Prequel
- The Zinger
- Out of Kansas
- Osteopathy Meets the Underground Railroad (Basye & Berch)
- A Second Act Revealed – 135 Years After the Fact
- The Butterfly Effect or Cascade?
- Deconstructing Johnson’s Hotel